By Julie Wolf
David Cohen founded the nonprofit Playing It Forward in 2008. Since 2011 he has also been the executive director of Doc Wayne, a nonprofit that offers at-risk youth an innovative group therapy experience through sport. In this interview, David tells us how lucky he feels to be able to use his love of sport to help children who have been dealt a difficult hand. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Framingham with their daughters, Olivia (9) and Sydney (5).
How did you decide to combine sport and philanthropy and make the two your daily work?
As a former athlete, I know how powerful sport can be to youth. It wasn’t until 2008 that I thought to combine my passion for sport with career aspirations. I was watching a documentary that included Lou Gossett Jr. and some other celebrities in Africa, and the youth they were visiting were playing soccer with rag balls. This impacted me quite a bit, and I knew I could find at least one soccer ball to make a difference. My first phone call was to my former coach and mentor at the Brooks School in North Andover, and immediately I had my first equipment donation from the school. That set the stage, and since then, through Playing It Forward, Inc., I have been able to reach more than 30,000 kids in 20-plus countries, including the U.S. There is incredible synergy between Doc Wayne and Playing It Forward. While the missions are different, the opportunity to impact youth through sport is the same.
Now tell us about Doc Wayne. How did this come about?
I met the founder of the organization and former president of the Justice Resource Institute, Susan Wayne, and she took an interest in my entrepreneurial experience as well as my passion for sport and youth. It was a natural fit for me to take over the organization in an effort to expand our reach through a therapeutic sports-based curriculum while impacting youth who have faced some serious challenges in their lives. Throughout our existence, we have focused primarily on youth who are burdened with complex trauma, serious emotional disorders, substance abuse, and severely challenging behaviors. Many of these children do not have a strong support system at home, or even a place to call home.
Our “do the good” curriculum is at the core of our programming. Our therapeutic sports program is designed to achieve four related objectives: promoting youth participants’ personal development; improving their capacity for prosocial relationships [behaviors that benefit individuals and those around them]; maximizing their capacity for inclusion and participation in therapy and school; and becoming an experience that participants can apply to aspects of their lives on and off the field.
Are you from a nonprofit background originally?
No. I started my career working for the Redstone family at National Amusements in New Business Development. I had an incredible mentor who was one of the senior VPs of the company, and early on was traveling to Chile and Argentina while the company was expanding to those markets. After almost six years, I left that role in order to complete my MBA and then chose the entrepreneurial route. The past 18 years have not been easy, but all of my experiences have positioned me well to lead an organization that crosses both the human services and sports-based youth development fields.
Do your daughters understand what you do for work? Do you find yourself using any of the Doc Wayne methods when talking to them about their own participation on a team?
The kids are starting to understand what I do as they get older, though it is tricky and can be confusing to them, especially since many of the youth I work with come from troubling situations — no family, have been abused or neglected, etc. They do ask questions, and I try to make sure I answer them with just the right amount of information. With Playing It Forward, my daughters have spent time helping to select equipment and pack boxes. Those are special moments as they do understand there will be children at the other end who will be smiling with the arrival of the sports equipment.
A circle-up (huddle) is very important to us at Doc Wayne as it provides equal space for all participants and is the place were we all offer praise to one another. I coach my older daughter’s soccer team, and I have actually used this with them. Win or lose, we try to spend a few minutes reflecting on the game and find the positives with each member of the team. At this age especially, it’s about providing joyful moments, bolstering one’s self-esteem, and giving each kid the chance to grow and persevere at their own pace.
Are you conscious of modeling community-minded behavior for them? Is it something that was part of your own upbringing, and perhaps your Judaism? After all, Tikkun Olam — repairing the world — is one of the most important Jewish values that our children learn as soon as they begin their religious education.
I grew up in a giving family, but it wasn’t until Brooks School where I really learned a lot about philanthropy. Lauren and I feel that it is extremely important for our daughters to get involved and help others. Wouldn’t it be special for organizations like mine to grow and for our children and our community to have a deeper connection and involvement at the same time?
There might be people reading this who would like to help. How can members of our community get involved?
Just like any nonprofit, we need to build a stronger constituency so we are able to become a sustainable organization. We aim to offer more programming to more youth in need, and we need help spreading the word. Additionally, we could use volunteers in a variety of areas, including fundraising and event support, referees for games, and advocates for our mission. My professional experience has truly opened my eyes to the need for all of us to pitch in to assist those in need. It really doesn’t take much.
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